What exactly is “hybrid warfare”? The term has received criticism for being too vague. Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojansky have argued that Russia has no unified doctrine on hybrid warfare and is, in many ways, simply emulating how the United States operated in Afghanistan and Iraq. Similarly, Damien Van Puyvelde pointed that regular and irregular warfare tactics have been used in tandem many times across history. However, Russia seems to be the first state to be relatively more successful at modernizing this methodology and putting it into practice. The increasing prevalence of hybrid warfare is evidence of how war has changed. Carl Von Clausewitz’s understanding of “Trinitarian war”, that wars are driven by states, militaries, and the civilian populations in a strictly divided manner, was already not necessarily true in wars outside of Europe – even within Europe, these distinctions had already begun to disappear by the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of total war. As a result, most armed violence since then has not distinguished between states, armies and peoples, while war between states has increasingly declined. However, although Martin Van Creveld claimed in his 1991 book The Transformation of War that “In the future, war will not be waged by armies but [irregular forces]”, the Russian state’s central role in conducting information and cyberwarfare, while also establishing and supporting irregular fighter groups indicates that this is not necessarily true.
Hybrid warfare’s effectiveness lies in its multidimensional understanding of warfare. At the heart of hybrid warfare are disinformation and deception, disrupting information flows to confuse the enemy, which, in turn, obfuscates Russia’s true motives and clandestine actions. This gives Russian operatives and proxies much more flexibility in acting within Russian interests as it allows Russia to claim plausible deniability, thereby preventing Russia from being held accountable for any actions deemed aggressive. Likewise, cyberwarfare conducted by Russia usually involves targeting the enemy state’s critical infrastructure and communications networks, disrupting an enemy state’s mobility and ability to retaliate. Even though a sustained conventional war is unlikely, Russia can utilize its conventional military forces when it wants to project its hard power capabilities and/or occupy territories. Asymmetric warfare can additionally be used to force the enemy to fight against an insurgency. By coercing the enemy to fight a war without a front, it is impossible to know when and where an insurgent might strike, forcing an enemy state to engage in a costly and protracted conflict. At the same time, the Kremlin can avoid potential backlash to casualties in such a conflict because most of the partisans are not the direct responsibility of the Russian government.
Against these hybrid-warfare threats, what counter-measures can be implemented? The fact that Russia was able to annex Crimea without any military response from NATO shows that conventional military deterrence has little to no effect on hybrid warfare. As a result, the first initiative should strengthen the relationship between NATO and the EU. With the exception of some of its cyberwarfare capabilities, NATO is first and foremost an alliance built around regular military force. Peter Pindják has pointed out that since hybrid warfare targets civilian institutions as much as it targets the military, it would make sense for NATO and the EU to work out ways to deter hybrid warfare together. But, considering the versatility of Russian hybrid warfare, stronger NATO-EU ties are highly unlikely to deter Russia completely. Accordingly, plans to nullify the effects of Russian hybrid warfare should be executed simultaneously. Because Russia’s information warfare campaigns are specifically designed to confuse an enemy state as much as its citizens, EU citizens should be educated to spot these incursions. However, since Russia has already been infiltrating information networks for years, this initiative can only go so far. Critical infrastructure should also be protected from cyberwarfare so as to prevent another scenario like the 2007 Estonian cyberattacks from playing out again. Even though Joseph S. Nye, Jr. has argued that a treaty regulating cyberwarfare should be negotiated, because it is already very difficult to trace the source of cyberattacks, it is unlikely that states would even follow the rules laid out in such a treaty. Since the former Baltic Soviet republics have a large ethnic Russian minority and are consequently much more susceptible to a potential Russian-sponsored ethnic insurgency like the one in Ukraine, granting more regional autonomy for areas with significant Russian minority populations and/or making Russian the second official language in all three of the Baltic countries may demonstrate that they are an integral part of those societies. In case this solution fails and an ethnic Russian insurgency does begin in any of those states, it is imperative that a NATO response isolates any pro-Russian militias from having direct contact with the Kremlin while NATO cyberattacks shut down pro-Russian communications networks. This should prevent the insurrectionists from gaining the instructions and military supplies they need to mount a continued and coordinated insurrection. Lastly, there should be an increased presence of NATO forces in the Baltic region. During simulations of a Russian invasion of the Baltics, NATO discovered that the conventional Russian military could overrun NATO positions within a matter of days. At the very least, a large deployment of NATO forces would deter Russia from claiming it wants to protect ethnic Russians in the Baltic region and sending in its own conventional military to support an ethnic Russian insurgency.
In short, Russian hybrid warfare is effective precisely because of it can target enemy military and civilian institutions. It has weaponized the tools of the Information Age while relying on old cultural and ethnic ties to recruit pro-Russian guerillas. As a result, conventional military alliances have to integrate their civilian organizations in order to counter this new threat.